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Discovering Dylan Thomas, A Companion to the Collected Poems and Notebook Poems John Goodby University of Wales Press

Discovering Dylan Thomas, A Companion to the Collected Poems and Notebook Poems  John Goodby  University of Wales Press

In PN Review 222, March/April 2015, I reviewed John Goodby’s superb edition of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems and made a point of highlighting the very fine quality of the notes included in what will surely be the standard edition of Thomas’s poetry for many years to come. The notes occupy the last 180 pages of the volume and they act as genuine literary criticism. I suggested that these clear and unobtrusive notes ensure that the reader gets an immense amount out of recognising the contexts within which the poems were written. When I contacted John Goodby to bemoan the fact that there didn’t appear to be any quick way of locating the notes from the poems, something which occurs also in the George Butterick Collected Poems of Charles Olson, he replied that the lack of locational referencing was part of the huge cuts (55,000 words) that the publishers insisted on. He also suggested that there were battles “every step of the way” to preserve as much of the integrity of the edition as he could; notebook poems and juvenilia had to be dropped as well as drafts of poems which he had intended to include in the notes. John’s communication concluded on a highly optimistic note:

“I have persuaded another publisher to publish the material I was forced to cut from the notes as a Guide to the Collected Poems.”

Well, it is here! And it is terrific! Everyone who now possesses a copy of the Collected Poems (it is available in paperback now with added page references in the notes) will want to purchase this substantial new book: a real Companion to both the Collected Poems and to the Notebook Poems. The rationale behind Goodby’s new book is clear:

“That rationale is primarily a critical and scholarly one, unshaped by commercial criteria, even though I hope this book will appeal to some non-academic lovers of Thomas’s poetry too. A coherent work in its own right, it offers, for example, critical histories for most of the poems, at a level of detail which would never have been tolerated in the edition, as well as material which has come to light in the two years since the edition was published.”

One of the exciting things about this new book is that as readers we are aware of being part of a work in progress: Goodby’s magisterial understanding of the importance of Thomas’s work ensures that any academic dust has been blown off the pages before we start to become immersed in an adventure of continuing discovery.
This new book is divided into sections including ‘Supplementary Poems’, ‘Textual annotations and critical histories’ and ‘drafts’and time and again we are reminded of the omnivorous reading which the poet undertook in different disciplines. In his introduction John Goodby raises the interesting question as to “just why Thomas alludes to and echoes other writers so obliquely”. By way of answer he points out a path for the reader which avoids simple references to other literary works incorporated within that reading:

“Dylan Thomas was a trickster-poet, one who resisted the display of metropolitan insider knowledge which allusion, quotation and echo of ten signify. Defining himself against Eliot and Auden, with their well-bred canonical assurances, he opted instead for a subversive, cryptic mode of allusion.”

Goodby recognises that Thomas’s volume 18 Poems “is very different to The Waste Land or The Cantos in smothering its allusions deep within its traditional forms, rather than flaunting them on a broken, variable verse surface”. He also recognises that there is a need for an overhaul “of standard accounts of 1930s and 1940s poetry and its relationship to the present-day scene”:

“Critics such as Andrew Duncan and James Keery have for some time been preparing the way by teasing out the 1940s inheritance shared by such unlikely bedfellows as Hughes, Plath, Roy Fisher, Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin and J.H. Prynne, as well as tracing the influence of W.S. Graham on poets, such as Denise Riley, associated with the ‘Cambridge School’”.

One might add to that list by including the name of Andrew Crozier whose ‘Styles of the Self: The New Apocalypse and 1940s Poetry’ was included in my edition of his selected prose, Thrills and Frills (Shearsman Books, 2013). One might further add an example of precisely the sort of “subversive, cryptic mode of allusion” by referring to a couple of examples contained within the poetry of J.H. Prynne. As was pointed out to me some time ago by Anthony Mellors, in ‘Of Movement Towards a Natural Place’ (Wound Response, 1974) there is a quotation from Dickens’s Great Expectations embedded within the text:

“upon his lips curious white flakes, like thin snow”

In ‘As Mouth Blindness’ (Sub Songs, 2010) King Lear’s words as he bears his dead Cordelia onto the stage are echoed, buried within the text:

“What is’t thou sayst? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle and low….” (King Lear, V iii 270-271)

“…Her voice was ever low…” (Poems, p. 609)

Discovering Dylan Thomas is an indispensable book. Buy a copy and you will discover much more than appears on the title page.

Ian Brinton, 14th May 2017

My Life As A Mad King by Alasdair Paterson (Oystercatcher Press)

My Life As A Mad King by Alasdair Paterson (Oystercatcher Press)

Having published The Floating World (Pig Press) and Brief Lives (Oasis Books) in the Eighties, Alasdair Paterson returned to writing with on the governing of empires (Shearsman, 2010), Brumaire and Later (Flarestack Poets), in arcadia (Oystercatcher Books) in 2011, and Elsewhere or thereabouts, (Shearsman 2014). His latest collection, My Life As A Mad King, is a wonderfully playful, energetic sequence of villanelles. The madness of the king is mirrored in the gradual break up of the villanelle’s refrains, repeated rhymes and their repetition in the final stanza. The nineteen line structure of five tercets and one quatrain remains intact until the final ‘Villanelle the ultimate and’ which consists of twenty two words. Here each word per line, apart from the elongated seventeenth line, and their repetition encapsulates the essence of villanelle. The linguistic wordplay is highly controlled and compressed with the possible variants of each set played out within a confined word field.

A pandemonium of smoke and fire
a panoply of wine and roses
a pantomime of flesh and blood

A panjandrum of cap and bells
a pantaloon of shreds and patches
a pandemonium of court and spark

Paterson has the ability to tease and freshen language, and invest his word play with precision and dry humour. This is a work of quiet authority testing a difficult form. Indeed, beyond Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop’s famous examples it is hard to recall other memorable villanelles. Paterson deftly plays around with clichés and misplaces repeated lines, sometimes reduced to one word, in order to explore the boundaries of the form. His villanelles are rhythmic, ramshackle and fun, punning on rock album titles.

A banquet of greased beggars
a glass with added glass
a saucerful of secrets

A locket drenched in lachrimae
a joint spiced with jacquerie
a saucerful of sanctitas

The sequence culminates with the aged narrator losing his memory:

A man walks into an oubliette / I forget what happens next / forget what happens next / forget

And moves into the final villanelle with its chilling opening:

Crack

head

forget

Windows

fire

crack

My Life As A Mad King is a joy to read and yet another wonderful sequence from Oystercatcher Press.

David Caddy 12th July 2016

Ephemeris by Dorothy Lehane

Ephemeris by Dorothy Lehane

Nine Arches Press

Dorothy Lehane opens her recently published book of poems with a quotation from that old Black Mountaineer Buckminster Fuller:

‘I live on earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category—a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process—an integral function of the universe.’

Let me add another quotation to this and it comes from Part One of Fuller’s Critical Path essays:

‘In scientific prognostication we have a condition analogous to a fact of archery—the farther back you are able to draw your longbow, the farther ahead you can shoot. For this reason we opened this book with our “Speculative History,” taking us back five million years through four ice ages, and at least three and one-half million years of scientifically proven presence of humans on Earth. We are confident of the validity of our speculative prehistory because it is predicated on naked humans’ physical limits of existence and on environmentally permitted and induced human behaviour and on human artefact-altered environments and their progressive circumstance- delimiting and capability-increasing effects. It is also synergetically comprehensive.’

Lehane’s second poem in this volume of energetic sparks is titled ‘Buckminster Fuller’:

‘heck, pioneer, maverick
Buckminsterfullerene: clean coal,
giant trilby, the dome geodesic

spacer molecules
unitary air is in the air

primitive bacteria are alive with you
man is not consciously cell
nor quasi-paradox

consumption with depression
meaning inertia’

We may indeed not be ‘consciously cell’ but Fuller claimed, soon before the publication of Critical Path that in July 1980, at eighty-five years of age ‘I have consumed over 1000 tons of food, water, and air, which progressively, atom by atom, has been chemically and electromagnetically converted into all the physical components of my organism and gradually displaced by other income atoms and molecules.’ The Foreword Fuller wrote to this, his most important book, concludes with a quotation from e. e. cummings, a poet’s advice: ‘A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.’ And Fuller then goes on to add ‘I’m not claiming to be a poet or that this book is poetry, but I knew cummings well enough to be confident that he would feel happy that I had written it.’ Dorothy Lehane is a poet.

I like the movement of sound in that early poem, the clicking echo between the slangy ‘heck’ and the claim for amateurism in ‘maverick’. I like the movement of eye between the human and the mathematical as ‘giant trilby’ sits beside ‘dome geodesic’. I like the merging of plurality into oneness as ‘molecules’ and ‘bacteria’ are recognised as part of the life within. The consumption of language, reading words and digesting meaning, makes us who we are and is provocative of movement not ‘inertia’. From its Greek origin onwards synergism suggests propulsion towards work. Odysseus was the only one who could string and draw that bow: get out of the way suitors; wrong time, wrong place!

In her introduction to the second issue of Litmus Dorothy Lehane directs our attention towards poetry which is ‘inherently neurological’ and yet which ‘doesn’t labour to assign literary parallels for scientific theory, nor promote heavy use of devices such as metaphor’. The work to be found within the hundred or so pages of this startling new issue of what already promises to become a major magazine player for the forthcoming years presents ‘subtle coded work operating at the limits of collaborative engagement’.

Bucky would, I suspect, have appreciated Dorothy Lehane’s poems and would also have had respect for ‘the neurological issue’ of Litmus: dip into it and see!

Ian Brinton 27th October 2014: centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas.

The English Pub and Poets

I have just enjoyed a literary meal at my local pub, where the landlord is fond of his ale, women and poetry. It is good to share a pint with him and chew the fat. He will drop in a line of poetry and look at me for verification. I smile back as I am hopeless at attributing some of the most famous lines! It links us though to an important literary and cultural tradition. One that poets have needed and used going back to Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and John Donne at the Mermaid Tavern. It is a great tradition. Dylan Thomas, Norman Cameron and George Barker wrote poems in the pubs of Fitzrovia. George Orwell drafted essays in pubs and saw their role in defining Englishness. Louis MacNeice and Roy Campbell famously came to blows in a pub as have other living poets that I shall not name. A few nights before he died, Barry MacSweeney told me of a poem that he drafted in the late 1970s in a Canterbury pub with H.R. Keating and John Arlott after watching a county cricket match. He was going to send the poem but never did. Sadly, pubs are closing at an alarming rate thanks to cheap alcohol in supermarkets and other factors. Poets and writers need pubs and community. There are always stories to be heard and told. Support your local and not the likes of Tesco. Raise a toast to your landlord and read him a poem. It will do you both good! Long may we support our local pubs and keep the tradition alive.

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